Quite possibly the oldest family of games known is that which comprises throwing objects at a target. Who hasn’t heard of ten-pin bowling, bocce or even lawn bowls? But pétanque? Not many people in the USA have heard of that one.
The game of pétanque has a long and venerable history with a pedigree that goes back to the dawn of antiquity. The earliest physical evidence of what was perhaps a bowling game was found and described by English explorer Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie in 1895 at Naqada on the western bank of the Nile in Egypt. (1) The artifact, from grave 100 at Naqada, is a wall painting dating back to around 5200 BC and appears to be of two boys playing a game in which they are tossing balls, or round stones. A copy of this painting is in Oxford’s Ashmolean museum.
From Egypt the game spread throughout the Middle East, arriving in ancient Greece around 800 BC. The Romans learned the game from the Greeks, modified it by adding a target ball and created a game that would be recognizable by players today. This game spread throughout the Roman Empire and by the 13th century bowling was a popular pastime in what are now modern-day Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Germany, England, Italy and France.
The bowling game developed many regional variations. In Germany it became kegeln or skittles, which much later developed into ten-pin bowling right here in the USA. In England and France a game that would become lawn bowling in the 19th century was played by the nobility and common people alike. It became so popular that it was prohibited by law, because archery and other military exercises essential to national defense were being neglected.
Jeu de Boule (Game of Bowls), 1847
(8” x5.7”) Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier
In Italy, the bowling game was called bocce. Bocce is the plural of Italian word ‘boccia’ that means ‘ball’, according to the Bocce Standards Association. Bocce itself has of variants, one of which is volo, which has spread throughout the world. In the South of France two games very similar to volo are known as jeu provençal and boule lyonnaise, and it here that the story of pétanque begins.
The sign says “It was in the year 1910 on this ground that pétanque was created”
One popular version is that pétanque, in its present form, was invented in 1907 in the town of La Ciotat near Marseilles, by a French Jeu Provençal player named Jules Hugues, known as Jules le Noir, whose rheumatism prevented him from running before he threw the ball. Another undocumented version says the game was invented by the brother of a famous jeu provençal player who had lost his legs in an accident. In any event, a variation of jeu provençal was devised where the player stood in place with both feet on the ground and played on a shorter field. The name pétanque comes from pè tanca in the Provençal dialect of the Occitan language, which yielded the French regional expression to play “à pétanque” or “pés tanqués”.
The first pétanque tournament with the new rules was organized in 1910 by the brothers Ernest and Joseph Pitiot, proprietors of a café in La Ciotat and terrain managers of the Béraud
boules club. The history of the game is well documented in the Musée Ciotaden in La Ciotat. An interesting but unrelated fact is that La Ciotat was the summer residence of the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, the pioneering creators of motion pictures who made their first short motion pictures and held public exhibitions of them there.
After that, the game grew with great speed and has become very popular throughout the world, governed by the International Pétanque Federation (FIPJP). The Fédération Internationale de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal, was founded in 1958 and has over 600,000 licensed members in 88 countries.
The history of Pétanque in the USA is not well documented, but it is certain that French immigrants and expatriates who had played the game in France brought the game to New York as early as the 1930s. The introduction of Pétanque into the rest of the United States as not only a game but also a competitive sport has been slow. While many clubs have contingents of French and francophone players, the popularity of the game is growing steadily in the non-French affiliated population.
There are an estimated 30,000 people in the USA who play pétanque fairly regularly in neighborhood clubs, campgrounds, schools, parks, or in their backyards.
There are 40+ formal clubs that are part of the Federation of Petanque USA (FPUSA), the official US body affiliated with the FIPJP. FPUSA now (2013) counts 1700 members, organizes regional and national tournaments as well as the qualifiers for the Men’s, Women’s and Juniors US National Teams that compete in international competitions.
Pétanque is not currently an Olympic sport. Since 1985 the International Olympic Committee has been lobbied to make it part of the Summer Olympics. It’s also thanks to the game’s exceptional popularity and the work of the FIPJP, that Pétanque is played at the many world sporting events such as the World Games, the Pan American Games, the Asian Games, the Mediterranean Games, the Pacific Games, the World Transplant Games and many more.
Petanque is a game…
In the South of France, Pétanque is a part of village life and is a leading outdoor leisure activity in the rest of the country. Indeed, that is where many of us have seen the game played for the first time and have had the first taste of this intriguing pastime. The beauty of the game is that it can be played on just about any terrain – on a gravel road, a firm beach, on grass or any firm, fairly level area.
The most outstanding feature of Pétanque is that it brings together all ages of both sexes in a way unheard of in more physically demanding sports. Boys and girls as young as four pick up the principles of the game with ease. Octogenarians of both sexes are still playing, some of them at a competitive level. With that spread of ages it is no wonder that Pétanque is a great outdoor, family bonding activity. And it doesn’t require any special athletic ability or physical prowess.
Pétanque is so easy to learn that anyone can enjoy it the very first time they play. The basic rules are simple and easy to follow.
To start playing Pétanque all that is needed is simply a set of boules (balls) per player, one cochonnet (a smaller target ball) and a patch of dirt to play on. The boules are usually made of steel, around three inches in diameter and the cochonnet is made of wood, an inch and a quarter in diameter. Smaller, lighter steel boules are available for kids, as are boules made of synthetic materials that are lighter (and safer) so that the game can be played indoors by both kids and adults.
How to play Pétanque:
The website wikiHow gives a concise description of how to play Pétanque:
The object is to stand in a circle drawn on the ground, and roll, lob or throw your ball as close as possible to the cochonnet. Only one team gets points per round, and the teams play as many rounds as it takes to arrive at 13 points. The first team to arrive at 13 points wins the game.
Players divide into two teams. You can play 1 vs. 1 (3 balls per player); 2 vs.2 (3 balls per player); or 3 vs. 3 (2 balls per player).
The teams flip a coin to see who starts. The starting team draws a circle in the ground. The first player stands in this circle with both feet on the ground and throws the target ball or cochonnet out to a distance of 6 to 10 meters. The starting team then throws their first boule from the circle, trying to get as close as possible to the cochonnet.
The 2nd team’s player then stands in the circle, and tries to throw their boule closer to the cochonnet than the starting team. It is allowed to throw a boule at the opposing team’s boule, moving it away. If the 2nd team does get a boule closer than the starting team, it’s called “having the point”, and then the starting team has to attempt to throw a boule closer.
The team which does not have the closest boule to the cochonnet keeps throwing boules until either they get closest, or they run out of boules to throw. When all boules are thrown, only the boules of the team that are closest to the cochonnet are added to the running score. The team which has the point(s) starts the new round, drawing a circle around the position of the cochonnet and uses that as the new throwing circle). Play continues until a team reaches 13 points, and so wins the game.
However, it soon becomes clear that there’s more to it than meets the eye. If you’re bitten by the Pétanque bug and want to go to the next level, a world of social and competitive play awaits you.
Here is a very short video
of some action in a recent Regional Competition. While you are watching you might feel that there is nothing to get excited about, but once you have launched a few boules at the cochonnet you will get what all the excitement is about. You can watch more astounding Pétanque videos on www.petanquetube.com
Where to see and play Petanque in the Bay Area…
There are six FPUSA affiliated clubs in the Bay Area where you can watch Pétanque being played and even have a go if you want to. If you don’t own a set, all the clubs will have a spare set of boules that visitors can use.
La Boule d’Or founded in 1959 in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco is the oldest active pétanque club in the United States and Napatanque Club in Napa is one the latest to join the FPUSA. The other Bay area pétanque clubs are La Pétanque Marinière in San Rafael, Lamorinda Pétanque in Lafayette, Petaluma Valley Pétanque in, you guessed it, Petaluma and Valley of the Moon Pétanque in Sonoma.
Visit the websites of one of the clubs to find directions, times that they play and contact information.
Links to Bay Area clubs and other interesting websites:
FPUSA website: www.usapetanque.org
Description of the game with illustrations:
La Pétanque Marinière website:
Lamorinda Pétanque website: www.lamorindapetanque.com
Petaluma Valley Pétanque website: www.petalumapetanque.com
Valley of the Moon Pétanque: www.vompc.org
Petanque America website: www.petanqueamerica.com
PetanqueTube, like YouTube, has videos but only about Pétanque: www.petanquetube.com
Just search for ‘Petanque’ on the Web and you will find a huge amount of information.
1. [Naqada and Ballas, p. 35, Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie and James Edward Quibell (Bernard Quaritch: London, 1896)].
Etienne Rijkheer, here with friend Claudie, is an avid petanquer and proponent of the game who, like many Americans, saw it played in France and got hooked. He is a member of the Lamorinda Petanque Club.